Rational Approach to Discipline
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“Rational Approach to Discipline,” Ensign, Apr. 1971, 53

Rational Approach to Discipline

Rudeness, talkativeness, destructiveness, meanness, belligerence, and stubbornness all add to the chronic problem of poor discipline. Such behavior, in whatever form, greatly reduces the effectiveness of the teaching-learning processes in the home and classroom. Because many children no longer respond to an authoritarian adult, parent, or teacher with obedience, more effective approaches are needed.

A parent or teacher who tends to be effective with children is one who encourages learning and good discipline by being warm, relaxed, friendly, flexible, a good communicator, well organized, confident in himself, and reasonable in his requests. He also strives to be consistent in his behavior, curious about the world around him, able to smile readily, competent, approachable, and sincere.

There is an advantage in adults maintaining routine and being calm, casual, and orderly. Their children tend to be less disruptive. In addition to being well prepared, an effective parent or teacher presents ideas in novel and stimulating ways. He is able to make them relevant to children’s concerns and interests. An effective adult has the courage to be imperfect himself, admitting that he does not have all the answers. His children will then also have courage to admit their ignorance, and they will be more open to learning.

An adult with the personality traits mentioned above and the described strategies can do much to prevent discipline problems from occurring. However, regardless of how well qualified and anticipatory he may be, there will always be some children who misbehave. Many have certain patterns of disturbing behavior that have been successfully used elsewhere to achieve their goals, and they may attempt to use them again.

A child’s behavior is purposeful. He behaves or misbehaves in order to achieve the goals he sets for himself. He will set a pattern of behaving or misbehaving only if he perceives himself achieving his goals through such behavior. This is called achieving payoff. It should be remembered that a child is only dimly aware of his goals.

Each child has an overriding goal to belong, to have a place, to be noticed, to be a concern of those whom he respects and considers important in his life. A child who sets a pattern of disturbing in the home or classroom is misbehaving in order to belong. It is his way, logical or not, of having a place in the group. Payoff for him tends to occur when parents, teachers, or peers focus their positive or negative attention on him when he is misbehaving.

A child has a certain amount of free agency and, therefore, is actively engaged in influencing the behavior of others interacting with him. But he is ultimately responsible for his own behavior. His parents, teachers, and associates also share responsibility with him, however, for he behaves in a social context where all persons influence one another, and their actions influence his perceptions of how he can best belong. If they pay off his misbehavior, he will tend to be stimulated to belong through misbehavior; but if they pay off his good behavior, he will be encouraged to belong through good behavior. It is the obligation of parents, teachers, and peers to show him that he can belong by behaving and that he will not find a place through misbehaving. It is the obligation of the child to strive to belong in cooperative ways.

The specific goal of the disturbing child may be to get attention, to be boss, to counter hurt, or to appear disabled.

In general, it is recommended that the parent or teacher disengage himself from a child who is misbehaving. If he removes the focus of his involvement from a misbehaving child and places it elsewhere, he will not pay off the misbehavior. And if there is no payoff, the child will find no value in expending energy to misbehave.

As a parent or teacher works at responding differently, he will find that it takes energy and self-discipline, because his responses are new to him and different from the usual responses evoked by a misbehaving child. When an adult builds a repertoire of effective responses to misbehavior, it becomes easier for him to maintain discipline. The children also learn that he (the adult) can no longer be manipulated and they give up trying.

The disturbing child may get worse when he is no longer able to achieve his goals through the usual amount of misbehavior, but the adult who refuses to pay off for misbehavior can be certain that he is on the way to becoming more effective. The child may be saying to himself, “It’s worked in the past. Maybe I’m not trying hard enough.” It is most important that the parent or teacher be firm with his own behavior at this time. If he gives in and reverts to his old behavior, he will have paid off the child for his increased misbehavior, thus stimulating him to misbehave more than before.

Just as it is important not to focus attention on the child when he is misbehaving, it is very important for parents and teachers to pay off for the child’s good behavior. If this is not done, the child will continue striving to belong through misbehavior. Smiling at him, putting a hand on his shoulder, talking to him, listening to him attentively, and respecting his ideas and suggestions are all constructive ways in which adults can help him belong, thereby stimulating good behavior.

Probably the most effective way to reach a misbehaving child is for parents and teachers to discipline their own reactions and to work with the other children in the home and classroom in such a way that they also change their behavior when responding to the misbehaving child.

Two additional strategies that can help adults to avoid paying off the misbehavior of children involve the use of natural and logical consequences. Their use also encourages children to be more responsible.

In using the principle of natural consequences, the parent or teacher does nothing to interfere with a child’s suffering the consequences of his misbehavior. It is only when real danger threatens that the adult intervenes. Thus, a child who sets a pattern of coming in late for supper experiences the natural consequences of his behavior by his mother’s doing nothing. She does not save a plate of food for him, fix him a special meal, or nag and scold, since all this would be payoff. If he eats, he prepares his own meal and cleans up his mess; otherwise he goes without.

A child whose teacher has him stay after school because he was tardy suffers the natural consequence of his tardiness. When he complains to his parents about his “mean” teacher, they should respond with “Maybe you will learn to be on time after this.” They do not call up the teacher and verbally attack him for keeping their child in after school. They keep the responsibility where it should be, on the shoulders of the child.

A teacher who says to a child, “The directions have been given,” when asked to repeat them, is letting the child suffer the consequences of his inattention and thereby training him to listen more responsibly.

The consistent use of natural consequences is one of the most powerful techniques for training the child to behave responsibly.

In contrast to the use of natural consequences, there are logical consequences for misbehavior.

A child who throws food suffers the logical consequences of his misbehavior when his father says, “Either you stop throwing food or you may leave the room.” If the child continues to throw food, he has made his choice and is gently but firmly ushered out of the dining room by his father. The child is not respecting the rights of others and is logically removed when his behavior persists.

Another example of using logical consequences may occur when a child dawdles at mealtime. The mother who has allowed sufficient time for the dawdler to eat (usually when all other members of the family are finished eating) calmly picks up all plates after each meal, including that of the still dawdling child, and scrapes the food into the garbage, regardless of the protests from the dawdler.

A child who breaks a neighbor’s window suffers the logical consequences of his misbehavior when he is asked by his parents to apologize to the neighbor and work out a system whereby he pays for its replacement, either in part or for the whole amount, depending on the age of the child.

There are times when a child has had so much success in achieving payoff through misbehaving that it is too difficult for parents or teachers to cope successfully with him and at the same time maintain their equilibrium and deal effectively with others in the home or classroom. At such times, a logical consequence would be to remove the child to a “time-out” room, for his own good and the good of others, until he agrees to be cooperative.

A time-out room is a room in the home or church that is bare of anything of interest to the child. It has four walls, a chair, a door, and good ventilation and lighting. A child is not locked in or held in except if he refuses to stay. He has the right to come out whenever he settles down.

There are several cautions to using the time-out room. First, the child must always be given the choice of either settling down and being cooperative, or of going to the time-out room. Second, he is only locked or held in when he refuses to stay on his own volition. He decides whether the door is to be locked or not.

Third, if it is decided that someone is to be with him in the time-out room, the adult must behave as an unemotional robot; otherwise going to the time-out room can make the misbehaving child a person who gets special payoff in a one-to-one relationship with an adult. Fourth, remember that the child may at first “pull out all stops” when he is thwarted in achieving his goals. He will tend to improve to the degree that adults are persistent and consistent.

Fifth, there must be no hint of anger toward the child or attempts to humiliate him. The adult’s tone of voice should be calm, gentle, and firm; otherwise the child will know that he is achieving his goals. Sixth, always keep in mind that the child should be removed to the time-out room only for his own good, to train him to be more responsible. It is not to be used by adults for purposes of retaliation, humiliation, or punishment.

A four-year-old boy had set a pattern of talking out loud, kicking, and yelling in sacrament meeting. He would scream when his parents tried to make him be quiet. He disturbed everyone around him, and he embarrassed his parents. To correct the behavior, his father initiated a program of taking him, as soon as he started to fuss, to an unused classroom at the opposite end of the building from the chapel. While there, the father did not talk to him or respond in any of the usual ways. He was an uninteresting, nonresponding robot who kept the child within the limits of the room. As soon as the child said he was ready to be quiet in church, the father returned with him to the meeting. When he started acting up again the father immediately took him back to the time-out room. When the child said “I’ll be good,” Father responded simply with “You seem to need a little more time to think it over,” so the child was kept there longer. This went on for about five Sundays until the child was trained to behave. An important part of this program was that the father was very warm and friendly with the child when he was behaving in the meetings.

A child who has had many successes in achieving his goals through misbehavior can disrupt his Sunday School or Primary class, regardless of how effective the teacher is in withdrawing payoff for his misbehavior; and his teacher may not be able to wait for his behavior to gradually improve. The time-out room can be used effectively in such a situation. It should be set up in consultation with the officers of the organization, and an adult who can be firm but gentle should be assigned to manage it. The teacher then goes to his classroom with the confidence that he has an effective plan for doing something positive about the discipline in his class and the training of the misbehaving child. As soon as the child starts to misbehave, the teacher says gently, but confidently, “George, would you like to settle down or would you like to go to another room?” If he continues to misbehave, he is immediately taken to the time-out room, where procedures are to be followed as previously described.

Rearing children effectively is a most valuable and challenging task that requires common sense and courage. With persistence, parents and teachers can find great satisfaction in their demanding roles.

  • Dr. Allred, associate professor of child development and family relationships at Brigham Young University and author of Mission for Mother: Guiding the Child, earned his Ed.D. in counseling psychology at the University of Oregon in 1966. His ideas on discipline and his work in developing open forum family counseling centers have been influenced by Dr. Rudolf Dreikurs. Brother Allred, the father of three children, sings in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Art by Dale Kilbourn